Climate change is causing more extreme weather than ever, but Spanish-speaking U.S. residents don’t always understand weather warnings because of language barriers.
Joseph Trujillo Falcón, a graduate researcher at the NOAA and University of Oklahoma Cooperative Institute for Severe and High Impact Weather Research and Operations, is changing that.
More than 40 million people in the United States speak Spanish at home. Trujillo Falcón studies how these communities receive, comprehend, and respond to life-threatening weather and climate hazards. His goal: making sure that lifesaving information about dangerous weather is reaching the country’s Spanish-speaking population.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Yale Climate Connections: Climate change is bringing more extreme weather. So can you talk about how important and critical it is to provide weather information and warnings in Spanish?
Joseph Trujillo Falcón: You know, I always link the conversation back to the Weather Service mission statement, and that is to protect life and property. And I want to make sure that all life and property is taken into account here — no matter what your cultural or language background is.
So especially as our climate begins to make different types of disasters a lot more concerning, we need to make sure that everyone’s included in disaster preparedness and response. And this is why it’s so important that Spanish speakers are integrated into this process.
YCC: And it’s correct to say this is already an issue now, right?
Joseph Trujillo Falcón: Yeah, this is not something new. It’s actually been documented within the National Weather Service and it traces back all the way to 1970, when about half of the fatalities from a tornado in Texas were of Spanish-speaking individuals.
And ever since then, we’ve repeatedly seen instances where language disparity is an issue when it comes to disasters. In California last year, we saw record-breaking wildfires, and you could see the language inequities present there, where people did not know of the incoming threat and did not know what to do.
And so it’s an issue that traces back decades, and it’s becoming ever-more important.
Listen: National Weather Service revises Spanish terms for severe storms
YCC: How does familiarity with different types of weather events come into play?
Joseph Trujillo Falcón: Let’s face it: Here in the United States, we face hazards that other people from different parts of Latin America may not have ever experienced. And so a word has not been developed. And we can’t encourage people to take action if they don’t know — or we can’t even describe the threat to them.
For example, I’m from Lima, Peru. And I grew up getting used to — at least adjusting — to earthquake threats. I had generational knowledge of it. My grandma would tell me stories about significant earthquakes in the area and what sort of actions to take. My school, for example, had earthquake drills. And our infrastructure in Peru is better suited for those given hazards.
But then when I moved to the United States, I moved to Dallas, Texas — the heart of tornado alley — and I was not aware of tornado sirens.
And so I think it’s so important to acknowledge that when people immigrate to the United States, they might face different hazards and emergency systems altogether. And that’s something that we have to take into account, especially as we’re trying to raise awareness of the different hazards that climate may be exacerbating in the future and making sure that everybody stays safe.
YCC: What are some of the challenges to providing standardized Spanish language translations?
Joseph Trujillo Falcón: I always like to link it back to the example of ‘weather’ versus ‘climate.’ In English, we have a distinction: ‘Weather’ represents everything in the short term, and ‘climate’ represents everything in the long term. There is no such distinction in Spanish, and different areas in Latin America use ‘weather’ and ‘climate’ interchangeably. That’s why you’ll sometimes hear people talk about ‘el estado del clima’ and they’re actually referring to the weather forecast, because they use those words interchangeably.
And of course, coming from different places in Latin America, Europe, and Africa, Spanish speakers have different ways of speaking — these regional differences or dialects of language. A fun example for my Puerto Rican friends out there: They learned the word ‘thunderstorm’ as ‘tronada.’ But when they moved to the [mainland] United States, they realized that other than Puerto Ricans, not a lot of people are using that word in their language. And so they have to adjust to the word ‘tormenta.’
And so it’s finding not only the translations that don’t exist, but also making sure that they’re universal across all Spanish-speaking groups. And that’s definitely a concern when we’re trying to communicate risk and encourage people to take action.
Read: Why climate change matters to Latinos
YCC: Describe the work you’ve been doing on this issue — specifically about the Spanish-language risk categories that were recently adopted by the NOAA Storm Prediction Center.
Joseph Trujillo Falcón: Sometimes you can literally translate a word, but it might not fully capture the message. You’re translating the word rather than the message itself. And I think that’s super critical to emphasize, especially in risk communication.
And so the Storm Prediction Center did have some established categories [for identifying the level of risk posed by a particular storm] in Spanish. And we worked hand in hand with linguistic experts and different social scientists to find better terminology that was able to at least engage more Spanish-speaking communities.
For example, Level Two [risk] in Spanish was “leve.” And the linguistic experts told us that word was only really used in Europe in that way, and not really in Latin America, so a lot of people were confused.
And so we found universal ways to communicate risk from Levels One through Five: mínimo, bajo, moderado, alto, and extremo – or, in English: minimum, low, moderate, high, and extreme.
And then we tested it with a representative sample [of] 1,050 U.S. Spanish speakers and found that they were able to understand what the categories meant in terms of urgency significantly better than the [previous] translations.
And so as a result, our agency adopted them this past summer and they’re now being used nationwide across all bilingual stations in the United States.
YCC: It sounds relatively simple, but this change can have a profound impact. Can you talk about the significance?
Joseph Trujillo Falcón: Whenever we’re trying to engage our Spanish-speaking communities, we have to make sure that we tailor our messages to them. You know, somebody that is bilingual might look at previous translations and understand that people are trying, but they’re not speaking or tailoring the message towards them.
So I think this is a great first step, and let me emphasize that — a first step — in engaging these communities, so that we can make sure that they know that we are willing to reach out to them, and we are willing to incorporate them in this emergency preparedness process.
And of course, it goes far beyond language. We have to connect better with community leaders that have trust within these communities.
And so we’ve been working with bilingual broadcast meteorologists because they’re the frontline communicators in this and they’re able to engage our communities. They’re very well trusted among our community.
And research shows that Hispanic and Latinos overall are more willing to talk about climate change. Recent surveys show that global warming is important to eight in 10 Latinos. So I think it’s just a matter of making sure that we can all be part of the conversation.